The postcard-pretty tourist town of Santa Fe, N.M., is peppered with art galleries, trendy restaurants, and turquoise jewelry shops and calls itself "The City Different" in recognition of its quirkiness, diverse population, and progressive politics.
But ever since a 21-year-old man was beaten unconscious there by a group of men allegedly yelling antigay slurs, some people are wondering whether the city isn't a little naive about its self-image.
Amyel Oliveros, a gay 17-year-old, said he thinks twice about the route he takes home from school and worries that his plaid scarf might clue in strangers to his sexuality. "I thought for a while maybe I should act even more straight, but it wasn't me," he said.
Second only to San Francisco in the percentage of same-sex couple households, Santa Fe, population 62,000, promotes itself as a vacation spot for gays, and a pride celebration fills the Spanish-style plaza each summer. A retirement village to open next year trumpets itself as the only such place in the nation catering mainly to gay retirees. "I thought I was in a gay haven, I mean, Santa Fe," Oliveros said.
According to the 2000 Census, nearly 2% of all of the metropolitan area's "coupled households," married or unmarried, are headed by same-sex couples.
The February 27 attack began when a group of young men confronted James Maestas and a male companion outside a restaurant where they had all just eaten. One of the alleged assailants, Gabriel Maturin, told police he became offended when one of the two put his hand on Maturin's chest.
Then, outside a motel nearby, Maturin saw the two men kissing, and he and another man started pummeling Maestas, according to Maturin's account. The attackers yelled, "Faggots!" among other slurs, according to witnesses. Maestas suffered a broken nose, a concussion, and lung injuries, contracting pneumonia during his recovery at a hospital. His companion, Joshua Stockham, 24, suffered minor injuries.
Maturin, 20, and five others have been charged, including a 17-year-old on probation for raping a 4-year-old boy. All have pleaded not guilty. Tom Clark, Maturin's attorney, said, "I want them tried by the court and the state, not in the court of public opinion, because the court of public opinion is notoriously uninformed."
Prosecutors plan to seek a hate-crime enhancement in all six cases, the first time that provision--which could tack on a year to any sentence--has been sought since it was written into law in 2003. "The community is depressed and outraged, and there's a lot of activity as far as discussing next steps," said Rachel Rosen, a friend of the Maestas family and chairwoman of Equality New Mexico, a gay rights organization.
A vigil days after the attack drew hundreds of people to the plaza. A sit-in a week later at the state capitol sponsored by the Anti-Homophobia Action Committee drew about two dozen people. A fund to help pay Maestas's hospital bills has collected $6,500.
Seeking a root cause, some have blamed antigay language used during the current session of the legislature, where a measure to ban gay marriage has been debated. That bill was prompted in part by a New Mexico county clerk's decision to issue marriage licenses last year to about 60 gay couples. "I can tell you that anywhere that there is antigay rhetoric and hate speech allowed in our schools and in the legislature, there will be violence," Rosen said.
Now out of the hospital, Maestas has remained out of public view. Friends describe him as a funny, peaceful person who doesn't know how to fight. Susanna Roberts, 17, who shared a backyard fence with him growing up in Santa Fe, visited him in the hospital. "Just because he was gay," she said, shaking her head. "It's just unbelievable." (Heather Clark, AP)